Whitesplaining: The Conversation About White Progressive Liberal Racism That We Aren’t Having
Within this conversation about race in our country, we need to include the forms of racism that masquerade as non-violent, including each moment someone is being willful in their worldview.
July 23, 2020 at 3:11 pm
Whitesplaining, or white people explaining things to Black people, is a phenomenon. Many of us Black folx swap stories with our friends or with family members as we deconstruct these situations and the assumptions. In this current moment of interrogating the culture, I’ve been re-visiting these moments of whitesplaining in my own life as an extension of an insidious kind of racism that often goes unnoticed. It is the other part of the conversation about race that America needs to have.
I’ve lived in Vermont for 10 years. Here, the white progressive racism is partly due to the narrative that Vermont banned adult slavery in its constitution in 1777. With closer examination of the research conducted by Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield, one learns that this "fact" is full of inconsistencies. Vermont at the time was still an environment that allowed slave owners to place ads for runaway slaves.
In this current climate, questionable actions and utterances have a cover which looks a lot like social media posts illustrating that one has read White Fragility or any other range of performing anti-racist work. Another guise for this latent racism has often sounded a lot like, “I’m not a racist," or “I am an anti-racist.”
The damage of progressive racism is so skillful most of us spend our daily lives questioning if it really happened. On the national stage, we focus on the outward, most violent forms of racism while white liberal progressive racism flies under the radar. It goes unchecked, and if noticed, the one who experiences it is left with emotions that range from confusion to anger to bewilderment.
Here are a few of my own snapshots of the kind of whitesplaining that happens to Black Americans all the time.
In 2017, I wrote an open letter to a local newspaper about organizational hiring processes, based on not receiving an interview after what appeared to be a follow-up email about a position. A white woman who read the piece sent an email with an offer to help me write another op-ed that clarified things she did not understand. In this woman's communication, she explained that she is a professional writer.
Marrying into my husband’s family felt like its own roller coaster. In June 2018, the oldest of his two daughters was getting married. Before the wedding, I contacted his younger daughter to ask if she borrowed items from our garage because things were missing. After snide remarks and a backhanded apology for previously calling me a gold digger, I was exhausted. I wrote a response stating that I no longer wanted to be the n****r in the backroom cleaning up the mess.
At this point, my husband and I had been together for two years. Those years included many moments of being the silent, invisible, emotional clean-up crew after his familial debacles. My stepdaughter responded to my email by saying, “if you are so concerned with our white, apparently ‘racist’ family, maybe don’t come to the wedding.” She ended by expressing that no one wanted me there and it would be best for her sister.
She was right. After the appearance of a West African proverb and a James Baldwin quote from my husband’s ex-wife during the ceremony, I imagined I was the star in an independent film that went by the title, This S**t’s So Good, We Can't Make It Up.
I was never allowed to respond to the email. That night in our living room, my husband responded to my anger, firmly saying, “Be careful, my daughter is fragile.” This time, I asked the question out loud, “If she is fragile, then what am I? Am I not fragile because I am Black?”
This was my husband mismanaging a de-escalation, not some random white dude on the street. It was one of many difficult conversations in our marriage. It was the painful truth of white gaze in America and the shock of racial bias within my own marriage.
In 2014, The Atlantic highlighted research about the ways that Black children are seen as less innocent than their white peers. In 2019, a study in Epidemiology revealed that Black Americans were less likely to be prescribed opioids due to racial bias.
It is easy to overlook these facts if you are not Black. If you are the white friend or partner, you might still be under the illusion that the existence of a Black person in your life is proof of your non-racist attitudes.
This range of racial bias erodes the Black body in America. It becomes that way that we as Black Americans are not treated as a credible witness to our own experience.
This structural racism is why I questioned the validity of my experiences. I also wonder about my complicity. When I stayed silent, did I add to all the harms?
At the same time, these racial biases become impossible to treat as credible when they are cloaked in the comical.
Last June I was treated to a one-man-Kabuki theater when a white postal worker behind the desk accused me of not listening. He screamed, started making wild gestures with his arms, bending forward, and pulling on the counter as if a strong wind threatened to blow him away. I told him to calm down. I felt a certain disbelief while repeating my question.
That same week, I was in the meat department of the grocery store — given the nature of the story, I wish it happened in the cereal aisle — when an older woman appeared. While talking, she pierced the space between us, dragging her hand down the length of my arm asking, “Are you really this color, or is this a tan?”
I searched for Ashton Kutcher on both occasions. I wanted him to tell me that I was being punk'd. Of course, no such thing happened. By fall, there was more whitesplaining on the horizon.
In October, I was treated to a new explanation for racist behavior. I called out our landlord, an older white woman, for racial bias due to all the ways she mishandled other exchanges. I trembled while emailing her about my sense of erasure within these communications.
My landlord replied, explaining she meant no discomfort. She mentioned something about her father building integrated housing and the fact that her godparents were friends with Coretta Scott King. How was I going to compete with a response like that?
I made the joke telling my husband that when white people get called on racism, they pull out their civil rights cred or talk about class to illustrate that they understand the struggle.
Other whitesplainers use force of voice.
Last November, my brother-in-law became angry about my use of the word appropriation. His yelling was so intense that each word thumped my body as my heart pounded. I wanted to leave the table, but I felt trapped by my brother-in-law's belligerence.
In recounting the story to friends, I expressed my upset with myself for not fighting. However, what does fighting back look like when the white man is your brother-in-law who is screaming at you in front of his white family?
Later that night, I told my husband that his brother’s rant felt like a story of a white man who never made good use of his white privilege. It was my attempt to couch the incident in humor. Secretly, I became nervous about every potential family gathering that might include an outburst from my brother-in-law who would not admit to his racial bias.
These vignettes are endless.
There was the artist who reached out a few weeks ago through my website asking for me to submit my art to be critiqued to jump start a conversation about reparations. When I responded to her email, she explained that this was one of her forms of volunteerism and that it did not have to be mine. There was the older white woman who corrected me in my response to her question about living in Vermont, explaining that it was okay to be invited somewhere as the “cool Black person." There was the white author in 2019 who presented at my graduate program and declared that things have changed in America as she explained to a full room that her white male peers can’t get hired in academia. After her talk with a few others present, I challenged her riff of change in America, but she persisted, telling me, “You get to be here," as she further explained that one day I too would be standing at the podium where she presented.
There have been the countless times a white person shamed me in a group email within a mostly white office. There are the former white partners who explained the ways I needed to be Black to meet their needs. I was gaslighted by a former colleague I served with on the Brattleboro Selectboard after he embarrassed me in an online forum. Upon taking the post down due to his public rebuke, he continued to fill my Facebook inbox, accusing me of ending the important conversation. It wasn’t until recently when white residents mentioned similar interactions with him that I felt validated.
An honorary mention for whitesplaining goes to the white Yale student who screamed into my voicemail in 2011. My contract with the New Haven Health Department ended and they had not processed her check. In her voicemail, she included the line, “You have our social security numbers,” as if I might have stolen them.
White people have been explaining things my whole life, and chances are, if you are Black in America, that has been your experience too. Our silences around this issue have caused harm not only to ourselves but the whole community.
We’ve long explained things away or sometimes stay silent except when we share these stories with each other. This is the implied burden of not disrupting friendships, familial entanglements or the relationships we have at work.
Within this conversation about race in our country, we need to include the forms of racism that masquerade as non-violent, including each moment someone is being willful in their worldview. We must recognize the ways that certain new terms or performances of anti-racism are being weaponized to illustrate that one is not racist.
In other words, it is racism cloaked within a new term.
For some of us, we don’t want to rock the boat because we struggle with the respectability politics we were raised with. For me, I’ve learned that I need to not worry so much about the consequences of tipping the boat over and swimming to a different shore.
As my husband and I continue to have tough conversations in this climate, there is something I’ve been saying to him that I want to say to all white people, especially the ones who consider themselves to be progressive or liberal: I am not crazy.
The whole Black community is not crazy. We are a credible witness to our experiences. Every Black person in America has their own story of being whitesplained in ways that are often disguised. Whitesplaining causes damage. It is a form of white violence along the continuum of racism.
Stop explaining your civil rights cred. Don’t pose with any book that makes it appear as if you are actively “doing the work.” Stop throwing class into the conversation for good measure when you are called on racism. We are exhausted and your whitesplaining devices succeed in silencing instead of enhancing the conversation on race.
As for listening, we’ve been telling you our needs. Please refer to the historical record.